If you think you’ve seen this film before, you haven’t. If you go into Drive expecting an action-packed Hollywood heist flick, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. Why? Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who’s spent his career in Europe making bizarrely operatic, often violent cult films like Bronson (2008) and the endlessly fascinating Valhalla Rising (2010). While more Americanized, Drive isn’t far removed from those films, being a challenging, overly violent (but never sadistic) piece of pulp that’s nevertheless a completely singular and mesmerizing piece of filmmaking.
Yes, Drive—at its base—is pure genre filmmaking, with echoes of William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and the films of Michael Mann. The barebones nature of Drive’s plot is nothing new. Our hero—who we’re given zero backstory about—is a soft-spoken man-with-no-name played by Ryan Gosling. He’s a stuntman by day, and spends his nights as a wheelman for various criminals. His only friend seems to be his mechanic (Bryan Cranston)—and apparent partner in crime—until he meets his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (newcomer Kaden Leos), who the Driver soon becomes enamored with.
Irene, however, has a husband named Standard (Oscar Isaac, Sucker Punch) who’s getting out of prison, but is indebted to some unsavory characters who have tasked him with one last job. For no other reason than to keep Irene and Benicio safe, the Driver agrees to help settle Standard’s debt by aiding in his heist. Of course, things go wildly wrong, and it’s up to the Driver take care of business in various and sundry bloody ways.
As storylines go, this is nothing you haven’t seen before. With its ace cast (including Albert Brooks in a wonderfully nasty turn as our villain), by itself the film would likely work as simple popcorn flick. But what makes Drive so spectacular is the way that Refn has filtered this basic crime plot through his own aesthetics and interests, while never becoming a checklist of references. Frankly, this is an odd movie, from the synth-pop score and languid, almost meditative pacing that coexist to create the kind of undercurrents of dread you’d find in a David Lynch film, to strange touches of surrealism and unnerving, detached, splattery violence in the vein of David Cronenberg. This is, after all, a movie dedicated to professional weirdo Alejandro Jodorowsky, created by influences—per Refn—as diverse as Grimm’s fairy tales, to John Hughes (yes, that John Hughes).
Even with the film’s somewhat dense and nonstraightfoward nature—not to mention forays into violence that will likely upset a lot of viewers—the movie still has a heart. It also has a good bit of humanity and sweetness under its surface, seen in the Driver’s love of both Irene and Benicio. All the blood and guts come from an innocent place, at least as far as the Driver—whose nature is solely based in emotion and a certain naïveté—is concerned, becoming more a movie about where ugliness can drive us and what it can turn us into.
More than an exercise in style (which it has in spades) or violence, Drive is an important film in a year marred by mediocrity. Refn has managed to make a wholly idiosyncratic film—one smudged in his fingerprints—put into a wide release in a time when cinema is more reliant on middlebrow fluff than risk-taking. Despite the fact that the film has cult hit written all over it, Drive is a must see for anyone in dire need of seeing something new and urgent—assuming they have the constitution to handle it—made by someone refreshingly enamored with the art of film. Rated R for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity.